Of course I don't know Barack Obama or anything about what makes him tick, and how could I? Why should I? I don't need to know who he is, only what he's doing. But I don't feel that I know him. And I have a feeling that I'm never going to feel I know him. Not the way I feel I got to know John McCain. Not the way I felt I knew Bill Clinton.
I feel I know some dead Presidents better. FDR, definitely. Teddy Roosevelt. John Adams.
Probably all I really know of these men are their caricatures. But a good caricature captures something essential about the nature of the subject, and all of them, TR, FDR, Clinton, and the others had no inhibitions about revealing that essential something in public. They collaborated in drawing those caricatures. The intent and effect may have been calculated, there was a great deal of playacting involved, but what people saw, what those men let people see, was still them. A piece of them, at least.
Barack Obama resists caricature. That was a saving strength this election. The Republicans, with the help of lazy media types, have survived for thirty years by turning Democrats into cartoons of themselves. Clinton defeated them by being a bigger and more appealing cartoon figure than they tried to make of him. His Bill Clinton was far more hilarious and fun and well-drawn than theirs, a trick he might have learned from studying FDR who learned it from TR. Obama won on this front by being impossible to see into. They couldn't parody, distort, or mock any essential part of him because they never got a good look at anything he didn't want anybody to see. He has a talent for making people deal with him realistically and on his terms.
Obama is highly aware of himself as a symbol, as were Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington. He's also, I think, hyper-conscious of the temptations of that role and the dangers. He doesn't want to be mistaken for the cause he symbolizes. I think that was the subtext of his victory speech:
Don't think we're done here. I'm willing to lead us to the top of the hill but you have to do the climbing along with me. You can't stand at the bottom and cheer when you see me at the top.
"Yes, we can," was the response. The unspoken call was, "We've still got lots to do."
This is your victory.
I know you didn't do this just to win an election and I know you didn't do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime -- two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they'll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor's bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.
The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America -- I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you -- we as a people will get there.
There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it's been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years -- block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.
What began twenty-one months ago in the depths of winter must not end on this autumn night.
I think this concern that cheering for the symbol might substitute for action and that applauding the words might get mistaken for doing the deed causes him to stand a little outside of himself when he's in front of a crowd. What some have called his cool, others have called reserve, and others have resented as aloofness, appears to me to be a deliberate, disciplined, stepping back. He's watching himself with a deeply critical and skeptical eye, ready to come down hard on the first sign of an emotion or egoistic urge getting out of hand. At any rate, when I've watched him I've thought that the person least moved by the moving things he says is himself.
Good performers---and a politician on the stump is a performer---are often their own toughest audience, particularly the ones who aren't naturals. Some performers are able to watch themselves with a sense of humor, others with an ironical detachment. Obama seems to be watching himself with an open grade book in his hand.
And there's a loneliness about him. Bill Clinton enlarges like a sponge in water when he's in a crowd. Not Obama. He doesn't shrink. He doesn't contract. He's like a stone. The water surges around him, washes over him, might even carry him away, if he lets it, though you don't ever feel he'll let it. You can lose sight of him in the foam and swirl. But if you force your eyes to look through the roil, if you don't let yourself get caught up in it, you can see in there, the stone, still, by itself, unmoved.
This is just observation, not criticism, and it's based only on the casual and cursory sort of observation that a campaign for President allows. But it seems to me that with Barack Obama we have a President-elect who is a reluctant public figure. He strikes me as a brilliant, active, but scholarly man, introspective, even introverted, who's been granted gifts for public speaking, moral persuasion, and leadership that he's temperamentally not inclined to enjoy. In fact, of all the past Presidents I admire, the one he most reminds me of is Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant political thinker, a canny political strategist, a charismatic leader motivated by a strong sense of public duty, who on the whole would rather have been left alone to tinker in his study.
Like Jefferson, then, I think Obama became a politician because he felt it was his responsibility, not because he thought it would be fun. Jefferson may have been goaded out the door and into public life by the ghost of his heroically strong, popular, and gregarious father whom he was in awe of and who died when he was a boy. Obama has hinted in speeches that he feels pushed out the door by the ghost of his mother who used to drag him out of bed in the early morning dark to do his schoolwork before she had to head off to work.
I don't know. I'm making this up. Like I said, I don't feel like I know him. I don't feel like I know Jefferson either. I can surmise things about them from their biographies, but my surmises don't feel satisfactory.
Which brings me to Joe Biden.
Last night, I got the impression that as soon as he was done with his victory speech Obama started looking around for the fastest way to get off the stage. I had the same impression when he finished his acceptance speech at the convention. It may be that he was looking around for Michelle and the girls, but that's the same thing. Rushing into their arms is a way off the stage, a quick escape from the public into the comfort and seclusion of the personal and private. In the pictures and videos I've seen he looks happiest and most relaxed, and youngest, when he's with his wife and kids, particularly Sasha, who, and I hope Malia hasn't picked up on it or if she has understands, appears to be his favorite, and I think it's because she's the one least like him. She's the cut-up, the public performer, the gregarious one.
But as I was saying, for a moment there I thought Obama was going to run off stage. And then Joe Biden entered.
With that megawatt smile on high, beaming approval and affection at his boss, Biden strode out, put his hand on the President-elect's shoulder and, I swear, forcibly steered him down front and center. It seemed to me that Biden was making Obama take the time to enjoy the moment, and when I saw that, I said to myself, Ah ha! That's why he picked him!
From what I've read, it's clear that Obama went about choosing his running mate with his own weaknesses in mind. Not his perceived weaknesses. His own careful assessment of them. He knew---knows---where he is strong and where he isn't. He knew he didn't have any real, practical foreign policy experience. He had been in the Senate less than four years and half that time he spent preparing for his run for the Presidency. He needed someone well-versed in foreign affairs and defense issues. He needed someone who knew how to get things done in Washington. He didn't need someone who would do it all for him. He's a fast learner, a brilliant student. What he needed was someone who could teach him and teach him on the fly. But I think Obama wanted something else as well. He wanted, needed, someone who enjoyed the game.
Someone who loved politics for its own sake. Who loved the crowds and who knew how to stroke egos and console hurt feelings and suffer fools gladly and patiently and at great length and who got a kick out of doing it too.
Biden's the guy you can see reminding an annoyed and exasperated President Obama to smile and nod while listening to a blowhard and a boob waste his time by smiling and nodding himself. Biden's the sort you can see walking you to the door after you've just been dressed down and having you convinced by the time he's helped you on with your coat that you've been given a medal and a two-week vacation. Biden's the type who after your brilliant idea has been shot down in flames will sweep up the burning wreckage and hand it over to you as if its a gift, all the while telling you how much your advice is appreciated, how important it's been to have your input, how all you've said is going to be given the greatest consideration, and have you thinking, Wow, I'm one pretty smart cookie, aren't I? And the President knows it. He can't do without me. Most of all, Biden seem to be the kind who can steer you into a room full of strangers and have you feeling they're all there just to meet you and damn glad to make your acquaintance.
Biden, I think, is the perfect complement to a basically shy and skeptical man interested more in policy than in other politicians, drawn more to individuals than to crowds, more at home in private than at ease in public.
Obviously, I feel I know Joe Biden.
Joe Biden is the gregarious one.
Updated Thursday morning because I'm feeling gregarious:
As if just to back me up on what I said about Obama needing help suffering fools gladly, Newsweek ran this item:
When he was preparing for them during the Democratic primaries, Obama was recorded saying, "I don't consider this to be a good format for me, which makes me more cautious. I often find myself trapped by the questions and thinking to myself, 'You know, this is a stupid question, but let me … answer it.' So when Brian Williams is asking me about what's a personal thing that you've done [that's green], and I say, you know, 'Well, I planted a bunch of trees.' And he says, 'I'm talking about personal.' What I'm thinking in my head is, 'Well, the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I f---ing changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective'."
And, as if already taking advantage of having the cheerful and gregarious Biden nearby, Obama has appointed the grim and implacable Rahm Emanuel as his chief-of-staff. If Biden's a happy warrior, Rahm is just a son of a bitch. Ezra Klein describes him this way:
Emanuel is a brawler. He's legendarily tough and effective and ruthless. Hes the type of guy who makes enemies, then makes lists of his enemies, then makes lists of his enemies' friends, then makes lists of how they'll pay.
In the picture Ezra's run with his post, Emanuel looks as though he ought to be played in the inevitable Oliver Stone movie by a cleaned-up and freshly-shaven Bruce Weitz who starred as detective Mick Belker on Hill Street Blues. Belker, you may remember, was famous for biting the perps he collared.